Regreening the Earth

A fortuitous but unintended consequence of increased atmospheric CO2 levels has been carbon accumulation and increased fertilisation in plants leading to regreening in some regions. As discussed in the last IPCC report these effects include increased forest cover at the expense of savannah and grasslands, migration of tree-lines to higher latitudes and elevations, and increased crop yields. These  impacts can be seen most clearly in dryland areas, increasing vegetation cover as well as available soil water (Lu et al 2016). The CO2 fertilisation effect has been significant enough to slow the growth rate of atmospheric CO2 since 2002 (Keenan et al 2016).

CO2 fertilisation will only be a net benefit up to a certain point, but changes in land use over the past century have also lead to significant re-greening in much of Europe and North America, as shown by dramatic graphics produced by Ralph Fuchs of the University of Wageningen.  Europe now has a third more forest area compared to 100 years ago, due to vigorous post-war re-afforestation schemes, a shift to much more energy dense fossil fuel sources (Perlin 1989), and agricultural intensification leading to abandonment of  large areas of marginal farmland as they become unprofitable (Macdonald et al 2000; Renwick 2012).  This pattern of change has been accompanied and reinforced by urbanisation and other broad socio-economic changes as people leave the land (Keenleyside and Tucker 2010).

In the UK, land abandonment  has been largely stemmed so far by CAP farming subsidies (Chesterton 2009; Ceaușu et al 2015), and the apparent profitability of grouse moors across much of Scotland, meaning that practically the entire countryside is managed. Post-BREXIT, this may change if farming subsidies are dropped. In Europe however, the process is well-advanced and covers significant areas of land. Some 20 million ha. of land is expected to have fallen out of production from 2000 and 2030 (Navarro and Pereira 2015). Much of this will regenerate to scrub and forest- a kind of “passive rewilding”.

This process has been observed worldwide and is understood to follow both “economic development paths” and “forest scarcity” paths towards a forest transition (Rudel et al 2016).

In her 2012 book Nature Next Door: Cities and trees in the American North East Ellen Stroud gives a detailed account of this process happening in New England, which has seen a truly dramatic return of forests since their near-decimation at the hands of the early settlers. New York state went from just 25% forestation in the late 19th century to 61% a hundred years later; Vermont increased from 35 to 76%; New Hampshire from 50% to 86%. “Today,” writes Stroud, “the northeastern United States is almost 75 percent forested.”

This remarkable come-back was not a purely passive process that just happened as farmers left the land. Rather, it depended on a number of factors that contributed to reforestation, not least a conscious and deliberate effort by key individuals and institutions to recreate protected forests by buying land and putting it under protection.

The return of forest to former farmland and other cutover tracts is not merely the result of benign neglect, allowing forests to establish themselves wherever they were no longer beaten back to make space for fields. Trees came back because time and ecology gave them favor, but they were also encouraged and protected by choice.

A major driver was the arrival of railroads from the mid-west where large-scale farming on the prairies had taken off by the middle of the 19th century and was able to out- compete  the hilly and poorer soils in the north east. These began to be bought up by the Forestry Commission, who had been given the charge to protect water supplies form the rapidly growing cities of New York and Pennsylvania. It was the growth of these cities, and the recognition that extensive areas of forests would be needed upstate to ensure clean water supplies- what we would now call “eco-system services” -that provided the impulse for the rapid re-afforestation on much of the upland areas.

At the same time, a new class of wealthy urbanites wanted somewhere cool and tranquil to escape the city, and they preferred a “natural” forested setting for their summer houses over any signs of industrial farming. Some smaller farms were able to survive, particularly in Vermont, by diversifying into providing summer accommodation for those keen to escape the city heat, but many farms that were abandoned were bought up and converted to summer homes- a policy deliberately encouraged in some states by the Board of Agriculture. The tourists and summer visitors in turn helped support the remaining small farm enterprises.

Stroud describes how the railroads were also big consumers of timber themselves in their construction, and also brought timber markets closer to the forests: however, the tourists and summer visitors preferred trees to forestry operations, and in many places this is what tended to win out, with extensive areas of new forest placed under protection from logging- although in some states, perhaps ironically, some restricted judicious logging was permitted to preserve favoured views. People like trees, but not always dense dark closed forest.

So the return of the north eastern forests was not an accident, but intimately tied up with wider social changes, growing up alongside the growth of the cities:

Drinking water, industry, and even electric lights owed their security to the trees of New Hampshire. The city and the mountains, Ayres understood, were part of a single, interdependent landscape. The state’s seemingly pristine environment is a metropolitan nature, the result of new urban and rural interactions.


The story of the forest in the NE US is highly relevant to current debates about land sparing and the prospect of “peak farmland”. FAO data suggests the total area worldwide used for farmland may have been declining since 1998, even as production has increased along with calories-per-capita. Stroud warns however that land-sparing through agricultural intensification comes at the price of dependency on foreign or distant farmland:

Such extensive woods are only possible because of the region’s connections with and dependence on agricultural and industrial landscapes in distant places. If it were not for grain from the Midwest, fruit from the West and the South, meat from around the world, and lumber from distant woods, these trees would long ago have been felled for timber, cleared for other uses of land, or both.

However, as Phalan et al (2016) show, access to fertilisers, machinery and improved seeds can dramatically increase yields and secure farmer livelihoods, obviating the need for them to clear more forest for farming. This needs to be coupled with appropriate conservation policies and programs to ensure inclusion for all farmers in the locality.

Significant re-greening of the earth is possible given the right conditions and regulatory regimes, and the history of the past century in the US and Europe shows that this can happen rapidly on significant areas of land. As agricultural intensification, along with expanding conservation movements continue apace, watching the continued reforestation of areas cleared in the recent past for agriculture and fuel as developing nations go onto experience their own forest transitions will be an exciting prospect.

Source: World bank; cited in


Ceaușu et al 2015 Mapping opportunities and challenges for rewilding in Europe Conservation Biology, Volume 29, No. 4, 1017–1027

Chesterton, C. 2009 Environmental impacts of land management Natural England Research Report NERR030

Keenan, T. F., Prentice, I. C., Canadell, J. G., Williams, C. A., Wang, H., Raupach, M., & Collatz, G. J. (2016). Recent pause in the growth rate of atmospheric CO 2 due to enhanced terrestrial carbon uptake. Nature Publishing Group, 7, 1–9.

Lu, X., Wang, L., McCabe, M. F., D’Odorico, P., Bhattachan, A., Davis, K., … Poulter, B. (2016). Elevated CO2 as a driver of global dryland greening. Scientific Reports, 6(February), 20716.

Macdonald, al 2000 Agricultural abandonment in mountain areas of Europe: environmental consequences and policy response Journal of Environmental Management, 47–69.

Navarro, L.M. and Pereira, H. M.2012 Rewilding Abandoned landscapes in Europe  Ecosystems (2012) 15: 900–912

Phalan, B., Green, R. E., Dicks, L. V., Dotta, G., Feniuk, C., Lamb, A., Balmford, A. (2016). How can higher-yield farming help to spare nature? Science, 351(6272), 450–451.

Perlin, J. 2005 A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization
Countryman Press

Renwick, A. et al 2012 Policy reform and agricultural land abandonment in the EU Land Use Policy 30 (2013) 446– 457

Rudel, T.K. et al 2016 The drivers of tree cover expansion: Global, temperate, and tropical zone analyses Land Use Policy 58 (2016) 502-513

Stroud, E. 2012 Nature Next Door: Cities and trees in the American North East Washington University Press

Rewilding Discourses

Here is my dissertation submitted for the MSc in Agroforestry, Bangor University, September 2016.

Rewilding Discourses:

Evaluating different discourses of rewilding amongst land-use           stakeholders in the UK


Rewilding- the restoration of natural processes, sometimes including animal reintroductions – is drawing increasing popular and academic interest as a radical approach to conservation and land management, but is a plastic term with contested and sometimes conflicting definitions. Popular polemical presentations of rewilding have contributed to raising awareness of issues in current conservation policy, which focusses on maintaining specific habitats in a steady-state. At the same time, conflict and controversy has been created as existing land users perceive themselves to be under threat from a new movement to rewild the landscape.

A series of 18 semi-structured interviews were conducted with a range of stakeholders from Wales and Scotland including members of rewilding NGOs, the farming community, and professional ecologists, to answer the question:

“What are the discourses of nature and the environment that both inform and challenge rewilding projects in the UK?” and the subsidiary question:

“Why do people associate with and reproduce these different discourses?”

Significant differences, as well as agreements, were discovered between respondents. Reintroduction of carnivores such as wolves and lynx to Britain was generally deemed unrealistic in the short term. There was also broad support for the role farmers are playing to increase biodiversity and habitat under existing agri-environment schemes, and general agreement that such schemes need revising to facilitate greater integration of food production and conservation.

Divergent perceptions of current land management were expressed, a key difference lying between the value ascribed to culturally and naturally produced landscapes. Amongst rewilding advocates there was a lack of distinction made between romantic desires to return to a pristine “wilderness” and the move towards “wildness” as a process.

To move forward, the rewilding movement needs to clarify its goals of restoring natural processes rather than attempting to return to a historical baseline. Greater mediation and bridge-building is required between all stakeholders.

Carrifran Wildwood, Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway
Carrifran Wildwood, Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway


Rewilding has been defined as a process

“to restore self-regulating ecosystems, with a strong emphasis on the role of top-down control of ecosystems by large predators.”

(Soule and Noss 1998).

A discourse has been defined as “groups of statements that structure the way a thing is thought, and the way we act on the basis of that thinking” (Rose 2001 p.136).

Public and academic interest in rewilding has increased rapidly in recent years, with multiple discourses emerging around the term in both academic and public forums (Lorimer et al 2015; Svenning et al 2015). In the US, public interest has been galvanized by the relatively high-profile reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone national park (Ripple and Beschta 2004). In Europe, the NGO Rewilding Europe, initiated in 2011, now has 43 member projects from 18 countries, covering 3.7million hectares of land at some stage of the process of rewilding (Rewilding Europe 2015). The charity Rewilding Britain, inspired by George Monbiot’s book Feral (Monbiot 2014), was established in 2015, with the stated aim of establishing three core areas of rewilded land of 100,000ha each by 2030 (Rewilding Britain 2015).

Romantic ideals and the appeal of a novel form of radical conservation has so far left collation of a strong scientific evidence base lagging behind (Corlett 2016). This has lead to diverse definitions of rewilding which has become a plastic term, with multiple interpretations (Jørgensen 2014).

Rewilding has been as a holistic process for ecological restoration and resilience (Monbiot, 2013, Jepson and Shepers 2016) and a tool for delivering ecosystem services as part of a suite of technologies for land management (Navarro and Pereira 2015). Other researchers have cautioned about unintended consequences and over-reach from expectations about what rewilding can achieve (Nogués-Bravo et al 2016), while more traditional land users may see their more conservative values threatened by land-use changes demanded by rewilding (Schnitzler 2014, Rebanks 2015).

Beyond its role in conservation, rewilding is also proposed as a remedy for social and psychological problems considered to be part of a “modern malaise” brought on through industrialization, consumerism and loss of contact with the natural world (Taylor 2004). By contrast, ecomodernists, while acknowledging the therapeutic benefits of contact with nature, see rewilding as something that is facilitated by more modernization, with increasingly intensive and efficient energy and food-production technologies potentially freeing up more land for wild nature (Lewis 2015).

There is an increasing recognition by ecologists and conservationists that habitat and biodiversity protection are as much social issues as ecological ones, which is reflected in the rise in popularity of inter-disciplinary research (Moon and Blackman 2014). Different groups such as farmers, hillwalkers and conservationists may hold very different values concerning how they feel the countryside should be used. Within rewilding itself, differing interpretations could lead to widely differing policy outcomes. Following this understanding, this dissertation sets out to address the research question:

“What are the discourses of nature and the environment that both inform and challenge rewilding projects in the UK?”

and the subsidiary question:

“Why do people associate with and reproduce these different discourses?”

Related concepts such as “nature” (Proctor 1998), and “wilderness” (Oelschlaeger, M. 1991, Cronon 1996), as well as environmental issues such as climate change (Nisbet 2014) and wind farm development (Woods 2003) have been subjected to similar analysis to reveal the sometimes hidden or unconscious meanings underpinning such terms, including deep-rooted historical and cultural associations. To apply a similar analysis for “rewilding”, the method of semi-structured interviews was chosen to attempt to uncover and understand meanings which otherwise may not be directly observable or identifiable through more quantitative methods such as formal surveys (Moon and Blackman 2014).

Rewilding strategies have implications for a whole range of public policy issues, in particular the future of farming and conservation policy post-Brexit, and with debates becoming potentially more fractious between competing interests, it is becoming increasingly important to find forums in which different perspectives are voiced and listened to.

The complete dissertation can be downloaded here:

Wolves in the backyard

In a Youtube video that has been viewed more than 25 million times,  George Monbiot explains with masterful clarity How Wolves Change Rivers. The short film tells the story of Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after an absence of 70 years. Heralded as a successful example of “trophic rewilding” (Svenning et al 2015) – whereby missing “trophic levels” in the food pyramid are re-installed to exert top-down control- the returning wolves are credited with controlling numbers and behaviour of herbivores (elk), thereby allowing vegetation to return. This then has multiple cascading benefits throughout the  eco-system, providing food and habitat for many other species including bears and beavers, and ultimately stabilizing river systems and raising the water table. With stunning photography, the film paints an irresistible picture of holistic ecological restoration through a whole landscape, successfully brought about by the return of one of the most iconic and charismatic carnivores.

How realistic is it? Certainly, there is evidence for many of the beneficial effects of trophic rewilding claimed in the video, including restoration of willow and aspen along riparian zones, and an increase in beaver and bison (Ripple and Beschta 2004), but it is not clear just how uniform these effects are. A 2010 study found that aspen was not recovering in many areas by that time after wolf reintroduction (Kauffman et al 2010). Another study suggested that willow communities did not readily return with the wolves either, since hydrological conditions had changed so much in the intervening 70 years since the wolves were banished (Marshall 2013). In other words, removing a trophic level and then replacing it decades later is unlikely to create a symmetrical effect- too much else will have changed in the meantime.

Moreover, such behaviorally mediated trophic cascades (BMTCs) are highly complex and can have unintended consequences far beyond the immediate aim of reducing foraging. Mesopredator release in the form of dramatic increase in the new top-dog, coyotes, was observed when the wolves left, but when they returned and preyed on the coyotes, this resulted in an increase in longhorn and rodent populations, with consequent impacts on vegetation…(Berger et al 2008). It is a tangled web we weave. She swallowed a spider to catch a fly…

Emma Marris has a nice summary of the literature, concluding that while the powerful image of the role of charismatic carnivores play trophic cascades may be beneficial in resurrecting interest in the conservation movement, the potential downside is unrealistic expectations and possibly the sidelining of complex realities in favour of a good story (Marris 2014).

The appeal of Monbiot’s lyrical storytelling in the video perhaps comes from the strong influence on ecology and environmentalism since their early days of the myth of the “balance of nature” and simplistic interpretations of how the “web of life” works. Our ecological thinking is still strongly influenced by quasi-religious myths about pristine nature and the Fall from Eden caused by humans and their meddling technology (Botkin 2012).

Since Monbiot’s influential book Feral (Monbiot 2013), the prospect of wolf reintroduction to Britain has come to the fore in discussions of rewilding. Wolves have been absent here for over 300 years, so there is perhaps even more reason to be skeptical that predictable, beneficial effects can be expected by their reintroduction to these islands. However, simulations have found that wolf reintroductions to the Scottish Highlands could help control red deer, and public opinion has been found to be fairly supportive in some surveys. Even farmers have not always been as negative as might be expected (Nilsen 2007).

The big question is of course livestock-wolf conflicts. Wolves have been making a dramatic comeback across most of Europe in recent years, largely as a result of stringent EU conservation policy giving them protected status: hunting is illegal unless special dispensation is granted under license. But they may be becoming a serious and widespread problem for farmers: a long article in the Economist this week gives estimates a wolf population of between 12- and 20,000 are eating anything from 20-80,000 domestic animals each year. In many countries, farmers get compensation for animals killed, although apparently the bodies are often hard to find making this difficult; perhaps partly because of this, and the challenge of getting farmers to accept sharing the landscape with carnivores, the policy seems to be moving towards a flat rate subsidy given to farmers who live in wolf country.

Conservationists argue that farmers can adapt to live with carnivores amicably. This was born out by a presentation I saw at the Future of Wild Europe conference in Leeds last week about perceptions of wolves in Saxony, NE Germany. Surprisingly, there had been no recent reports of livestock-wolf conflicts at all. That is not to say that there have not been problems in the past, but subsidies for preventative measures such as guard dogs and electric fencing appear to have helped broker a truce at least in that region for now. A bigger conflict seems to be with hunters, who find in the wolf unwelcome competition for their game. I couldn’t help but wonder if the real tension, and reason perhaps for the apparent compliance of farmers there, is pressure from the other half of the community who are benefiting from the boom in wolf tourism in the region.

Elsewhere, things are not so quiet. Reports from the Southern French Alps, where wolves have found their own way back (presumably) in recent years, show the extent of the impact on shepherds: individual kills are the least of it, with wolf presence severely stressing the flock causing weight loss, and the continual risk of attack from protected animals leading to a sense of helplessness in shepherds, some of whom have felt compelled to give up altogether. Other side-effects include modification of the landscape and a loss of a sense of “wildness” through proliferation of protective fencing, and the large, non-native Pyrrenean guard dogs that have been brought into the area have themselves been reported to have attacked hikers, making the area feel even less safe and possibly impacting tourism (Buller 2008).

Against the backdrop of the strong return of wolves across Europe, it is perhaps surprising to read recent reports that Norway is about to cull most of its wolves. It only has 68 animals, and licenses will be granted to shoot 47 of them. Paradoxically, controlled experiments lethal control measures may not be the best way forward though:

Although it seems obvious that killing a carnivore
about to take a lamb should ensure the latter’s
short- term survival, most lethal methods are applied
indirectly in wholly different situations. Lethal intervention
is usually implemented after carnivores are observed
near livestock or days after a predation event has
occurred, sometimes far from where the attack occurred

(Treves et al 2016).

Given the potential opposition and difficulties carnivore reintroduction is likely to pose to existing landowners, why do people feel so strongly about bringing back the wolf to these islands?

In my own research over the summer in North Wales and the Scottish borders, apart from controlling foraging, I was given reasons such as: wolves have a right to be here for their own sake. We [humans] take up too much space, it is time to give some back for other species. The sense of wilderness, fear and danger is important- it is something we have lost in our modern, coddled and insulated lives. Walking in a landscape with wolves would make us feel more alive.

None of the rewilding advocates I interviewed seriously felt there was a prospect in the near-term of wolf reintroductions however, much as they would like to see it, not in their lifetimes. There is too much controversy and opposition. They would however like to see education programs to help persuade people that we could live happily alongside wolves. They would not necessarily impose that much on everyday life- people can typically live their entire lives in wolf country without ever actually seeing one.

It is also said that were it not for the geographical accident of being an island, wolves would already have re-colonized Britain, just as they have spread through the continent. To counter that, we could say that, being an island is also a natural state, and maybe we don’t need wolves to be everywhere. There are also islands that never had wolves- should we bring them there aswell? As keeping down the deer population- while we might not currently be doing such a brilliant job of it, why should humans not play the role of top predator- is that not, in fact, what we are?

There is also the minor issue that, as mentioned in the Economist article, wolves do sometimes kill people. Statistically, not very many compared to most other forms of death, but perhaps not something that should be lightly dismissed. We have lived without carnivores in our landscapes for  over 300 years, much longer than they were absent for in Yellowstone, and maybe we would find it harder to adapt.

I do wonder – and worry – though, about the “fear” factor- is that really what people want? I also share a thrill at the thought of big scary wild animals in the landscape, but for me, hearing people say they would actively seek a bit more danger evokes images of Grizzly Man– the logical, terminal conclusion of the wish to “go back to nature”. Anecdotally, research on the West Coast of Scotland has observed that community members often feel nervous about large carnivore reintroduction even in areas where they are not planned. That his was in an area earmarked for some level of “rewilding”, but not where there was any proposals for wolf reintroductions,  suggests how the “rewilding” debate has been so strongly framed as something involving animals with big teeth.

Wolves carry a lot of mythological baggage with them, invoking both unreasonable fear of the darkness of the forest- or perhaps the even darker, animalistic side of our own nature- and also unrealistic expectations of a return to some kind of pristine wilderness. In reality, as wild creatures, they are adapting readily to anthropogenic landscapes and hybridising with dogs and other animals,  challenging our conceptions of what constitutes “wild” (Buller 2008).

If the strongest argument for wolf reintroduction is that, how can we expect other countries to protect wildlife if we cannot do the same here, the counter might be that big animals pose a huge challenge to farmers elsewhere also ,and  how much biodiversity value would they really bring to Britain anyway?

Fractious debates between conservationists and farmers are likely to continue, but in Britain at least, there would seem to be a huge amount of other restoration work to be done in any case before there need be serious consideration of bringing back the wolf.


Berger, K.M., Gese, E.M. and Berger, J. 2008 Indirect Effects and Traditional Trophic Cascades: A Test Involving Wolves, Coyotes and Pronghorn Biological Sciences Faculty Publications. Paper 78

Botkin, D.B. 2012 The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered OUP USA

Buller, H. 2008 Safe from the wolf: biosecurity, biodiversity, and competing philosophies of nature Environment and Planning A 2008, volume 40, pages 1583- 1597

Kauffman, J.M., Brodie, J.F. and Jules, E. S. Are wolves saving Yellowstone’s aspen? A landscape-level test of a behaviorally mediated trophic cascade Ecology, 91(9), 2010, pp. 2742–2755

Marshall, K.N., Hobbs, N.T., Cooper, D.J .2013 Stream hydrology limits recovery of riparian ecosystems after wolf reintroduction Royal Society Publishing 2013

Marris, E. 2014  Rethinking predators: Legend of the wolf Nature Nature 507, 158–160 (13 March 2014)

Monbiot, G. 2013 Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life Allen Lane

Nilsen et al 2007 Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management Proc. R. Soc. B (2007) 274, 995–1002

Ripple, W. J. & Beschta, R. L. 2004 Wolves, elk, willows, and trophic cascades in the upper Gallatin Range of Southwestern Montana, USA Forest Ecol. Management 200, 161–181

Svenning et al. 2015 Science for a wilder Anthropocene – synthesis and directions for rewilding research. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA

Treves, A., Krofel, M. and McManus, J. 2016 Predator control should not be a shot in the dark Front Ecol Environ 2016; 14(7): 380–388, doi:10.1002/fee.1312

Bialowiezça: the Myth of the Primeval Forest

Over the past few weeks there have a been a series of reports raising concerns about the felling of old-growth trees in the ancient Bialowiezça forest in eastern Poland. A recent piece in the Guardian begins

Europe’s last primeval forest is facing what campaigners call its last stand as loggers prepare to start clear-cutting trees, following the dismissal of dozens of scientists and conservation experts opposed to the plan.

and goes onto blame Poland’s “far right” government for cashing in from logging operations, and ruthlessly purging the state council for nature conservancy of environmentalists,  replacing them with officials connected to the forestry industry. Greenpeace are considering direct action, and the WWF and others have lodged a complaint with the European commission over the proposed “illegal” logging, and various petitions have been run to oppose the governments’ intervention.

P1010762Photos: Bialowiezça forest, Graham Strouts 2013

Bialowiezça forest covers approximately 143,000ha split between Poland and Belarus, the larger part of some 80,000 ha in Belarus.  About 10,000ha -1/6th- of the Polish side falls under the stricter regulation of National Park status, originally designated in 1932.

Ostensibly, the logging is an attempt to slow the spread of the latest bark beetle outbreak, affecting more than a million trees in Bialowiezça. In some respects the conflict can be seen as being between differing management approaches, but on deeper examination cuts to the heart of similar conflicts surrounding environmentalism where Nature is placed above the needs of people.

While the foresters prefer an active approach of sanitation felling, removing whole sections of affected trees to prevent further spread of infection, conservation organisations- and many ecologists- prefer an adaptive strategy of  letting nature take its course, more in keeping with the designation of the Puszcza as one of Europe’s last primeval, untouched wildernesses. The foresters are accused of being concerned only for profit, while the environmentalists are slated for having no concern for the needs of the local community- which has traditionally foraged firewood, fungi and more from the forest- and placing a reified version of “pristine Nature” above the needs of ordinary people.

There is certainly good reason to consider adaptive approaches. Bark beetle outbreaks can be so devastating over such a wide area that anything other than hoping for natural adaptation may be unfeasible.  Genetic resistance will show up in the few surviving trees, and the forest will take on a more clumpy patchwork and diverse structure, leaving it less open to future attacks (Six, 2014). In the medium term however, the transformation of the landscape with over 90% of mature trees dead is likely to be devastating.


Despite Bialowiezça being widely valued as “primeval” forest, nearly all of it has been managed to some extent for centuries, and since the mid-19th century, with the exception of the inner core of the National Park, much of it has in fact been logged on a number of occasions: by the Germans in World War 1, the Polish administration in the years after the war; by the British Century corporation in the late 1920s, the State forestry service and then the Soviets in the early years of WW 2 (Szujecki). Ironically perhaps, it was the Germans in WW2 who made the first serious move for stricter conservation controls, putting an end to the logging and driving thousands of Bellarussian farmers out of their forest villagers in order to keep the forest for their own hunting-  in keeping with the more esoteric and ecological strand of thinking that ran through Nazism and which valued the purity of Nature over the needs of people  (Biehl and Staudenmaier 1995)- and which has left a legacy of misanthropy running through the darker side of the conservation movement today.

Most of the forest- 84% – is outside of the national park and not subject to its strict hands-off regulations- and it is here that the proposed felling will take place. Although the new felling does represent a tripling of the existing quota, this is still less than historic amounts, and will not be in previously unmanaged protected inner core,  representing perhaps just 1-2% of the total forest area.

Polish foresters argue that the current beetle attack is not only far larger than previous ones- perhaps exacerbated by climate change leading to greater water stress on the trees- but that it is also attacking younger trees which would usually be expected to be more resilient, and is spreading to other species including pines and larch. Moreover, the current outbreak is a result of stricter conservation policies that were introduced to much of the greater forest area in 2012, prohibiting the more frequent, smaller judicious sanitation felling that was part of a general beetle control program up until then. As a result, the infestation has spread to a much greater area, threatening the whole forest.

This has parallels with fire management in Yellowstone National Park. In the early days of the park, fires were suppressed, leading to a build-up of litter on the forest floor. Eventually a much greater conflagration would occur with devastating results (Bengtsson et al 2003). Since then, practice has changed to allow non-man-made fires to run their course. In this way, small, periodic disturbances can lead to greater forest resilience.

The Myth of the Primeval Forest


Such disputes over management practices in the Puszcza are by no means new, but in fact seem to recur as periodically as the beetle outbreaks. Franklin (2002) argues that Bialowiezça has suffered for the cause of “crisis environmentalism” whereby policies are promoted under the guise of emergency legislation. The ancient, so-called “primeval” and supposedly pristine forest- an untouchable jewel of natural perfection – is portrayed as being under threat of imminent destruction by greedy foresters, when in fact the forest has always been used by the local communities for meeting their immediate needs and gaining livelihoods (Marris 2013). This practice can be traced to a sensationalised newspaper article of 1992 (Franklin 2002) claiming the forest was dying, leading to demonstrations by Greenpeace and US Deep Ecology groups demanding higher protection status for the forest. Today’s social media outcry, with petitions and threats of direct action, reads very much like a re-run of these earlier events.


As with other ex-Soviet nations (Schwartz 2005), these conservation conflicts in Eastern Poland have also been tied up with a search for national identity and a shifting of attention away from other areas of environmental concern- such as industrial pollution- to appease the sensibilities of Western conservation interests and ideologies. It has been in the Polish States interest to play up the “pristine” image of Bialowiezça, at least when the national park was first established, so much so that carefully crafted propaganda films were made editing out any sign of human influence.

Eventually, moves towards significant enlargement of the protected area met up with local opposition concerned at the removal of their forest rights by outside environmental organisations. A protest in March 2000 by a consortium of foresters, local councilors and Bellorussian groups put and end, for the time being, to the myth of the pristine forest with no people.

Where does the truth now lie? Possibly as is often the case somewhere in the middle: in the past, over-zealous conservation movements, muscling in from outside with lack of consultation with local communities and without fully understanding the politics of the region, created a backlash which may now be being exploited by some interests eager to exploit disaffection with outside interference in order to make a quick buck. It is hard to know more without being much closer to the ground there. The Bialowiezça forest does have unique biodiversity value, but leaving it entirely to nature with no management at all will not guarantee the best outcome for biodiversity; at the same time, local concerns about loss of employment and access to forest resources need to be considered if successful conservation is to be achieved (Blicharska and Angelstam, 2010).

The dispute over management practices will no doubt continue, perhaps for as long as the forest stays standing- and there is no reason it will disappear for many centuries yet, whatever happens. While it could be argued that leaving the trees to the fate of the bark beetle is the best course of action, that would be likely to change the  nature of the forest for a very long time. In place of the giant hundred-year-old spruce trees there would likely emerge instead extensive patches of willow and alder. The dark, mysterious atmosphere and sense of timelessness that a visit to the forest currently evokes may be lost, and while the forest will still be there, its image as one of the last refuges of pristine wilderness be tarnished for good.P1010774

For Martin


Biehl, J. and Staudenmaier, P. 1995 Eco-fascism: Lessons from the German Experience
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